Vancouver Island’s New Motorsport Circuit

Douglas visits the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit for a full-throttle look at Canada’s first motorsport country club, right in the heart of the Cowichan.

Photograph by Russ Heinl.

It’s a gorgeous, sunny day in the Cowichan Valley, so there’s no need to worry about water on the asphalt as I ease the Subaru BRZ around a hairpin turn and hit the gas.

There’s a satisfying roar as the sporty blue car shoots forward on a straightaway, but I brake a little too sharply for the next turn, so the tires squeal and the back end drifts over the rumble strip. On the Malahat, this would qualify as reckless driving, but this is the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit — the first motorsport-themed country club in Canada — and I’m learning that when you take away speed limits and other concerns of the highway, driving is a hell of a lot more fun.

It’s a discovery that Peter Trzewik, partner at GAIN Dealer Group, the Vancouver Island-based luxury dealer group behind the motor-circuit development, is hoping other drivers will make.

“This is where people can find out what a car is really built for,” Trzewik says. “Many people who buy our cars have no opportunity to test that car’s true performance capabilities — and really shouldn’t on public roads. This track really came out of the automotive group … The underlying purpose is to sell more sports cars on Vancouver Island.”

GAIN, previously the German Auto Import Network, started with one store, Three Point Motors Mercedes-Benz in Victoria in 2008, but now has nine Island dealerships, which represent 11 distinct brands. As part of the circuit’s regular operations, each of GAIN’s dealerships will have access for client days and performance training. When I arrive for one of the motorsports circuit’s media days prior to its official opening — my group is brought in by helicopter, which gives a unique overhead view of the track’s serpentine layout — an impressive sampling of the cars available from the dealerships is waiting, including an Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, an Audi S3, a BMW Z4, a Mercedes C63 and a 2017 Porsche 911Carrera S.

Fast Business
Even if you’re not an auto aficionado, the speed of execution of the motorsport resort from vision to reality is inspiring from a business perspective. GAIN first began to consider the project around three years ago, when it acquired 275 acres off the Cowichan Valley Highway, north of Duncan. The land was purchased in two parcels, one from the District of North Cowichan and the other from Island Timberlands. The acreage was then logged, while plans were finalized and zoning was approved.

The heart of the facility is the 2.3-kilometre track, and while Trzewik and his business partner in GAIN, Sylvester Chuang, initially considered designing it themselves, they wanted it to be “world class” and turned to Tilke GmbH of Germany. Headed by engineer and former auto racer Hermann Tilke, the company is considered “the brand name in track design,” having built almost all of the new Formula One (F1) circuits since 1999. The Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit was Tilke GmbH’s first private Canadian project.
“I’m a Formula One fan, and nobody else has Tilke’s history or their record, considering the tracks they have built in the last 20 years,” Trzewik says. “I never imagined we would be able to work with the best in the world.”

Construction of the track and 15,000-square-foot state-of-the-art clubhouse began in 2015, and paving of the first layer of the circuit was completed late in the year.
“Saying the timeline has been intense would be an understatement,” says Chris Erb of SupErb Construction Ltd. of Nanaimo, the commercial contractor who does all of GAIN’s building projects, including dealerships.

“As much as it is a test track, it’s all about safety,” says Erb, who points out that the track itself presents unique challenges, different from standard road construction. “You’ve got a run-off area, so if you lose control in the corner, you’ve got a lot of area to recover, and then you’ve got clear stone outside that. When the car hits the clear stone, it virtually stops. And then there are guardrails or tire barriers, depending on where you’re at on the track. So safety is still the most important aspect of the track.”

Along with laying 10,000 tons of asphalt for the 2.3-kilometre track and acquiring and stacking over 30,000 tires for the tire barriers, the build included the state-of-the-art members’ clubhouse. Designed by Plaston Architect in Toronto and James E. Irwin Architect in Victoria, the clubhouse offers 180-degree views of the track and contains a restaurant, meeting rooms, presentation centre and four pit garages.

My track visit includes a stop in the control center, which houses all the monitors for the on-track cameras, as well as the feeds for the Racelogic software that members can use to record lap times and track their progress. With its multitude of screens and boards, it’s not unlike air-traffic control. This spot is also integral to track safety, and from here all track activity can be stopped, with immediate dispatches made to 911, if ever necessary.

Along with the current four-acre driving- dynamics area with its wet/dry skid pad, there is a one-kilometre off-roading circuit under construction that will have 10 different elements, including a water obstacle. Plans are also underway for phase two of the track itself, which will feature a long run through the trees.

“The whole thing is a pretty unique project for Vancouver Island, but it’s even unique for Canada,” Erb says. “And the positives for Vancouver Island are huge.”

There is also the potential for the track to draw a different — and moneyed — market to the area. Bailey Williamson, winemaker at Blue Grouse Winery, believes the Cowichan is poised to make a big move in the tourism sector and that the track is all part of the growth helping to lift the industry.

“The [circuit] is going to bring some really interesting people to the area,” he says. “The spouses aren’t going to want to sit around while their partners are driving loops around the track. They’re going to be out doing things.

“Like wine tastings,” he adds, laughing.

Country Club
The Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit’s official opening on June 6, overseen by operations manager Brent Evans, definitely brought some excitement to the region. The crowd of 400 included Grammy Award-winning music producer David Foster — whose Victoria-born cousin, Billy Foster, was the first Canadian to race at the Indy 500 — Dragons’ Den investor Jim Treliving, Italian stock-car racer Max Papis and former Formula One driver Danny Sullivan.

While motorsport “country clubs” have been popular in Europe for some time, they are only recently catching on in North America. Vancouver Island’s joins a growing number of clubs popping up in the United States, including facilities in New York, Virginia, California and Nevada. Trzewik compares them to private golf clubs. At the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit, members get rare, year-round access to a professional-racing-quality circuit, paying from $48,000 to $200,000 for a 25-year pass. This gives a member 20 days a month of track access, including one weekend day, as well as family access to the clubhouse, guest driver passes, use of the Racelogic software and driving lessons from the house instructors. There will also be access to celebrity guest instructors, and confirmed participants include Max Papis and, for the motorcycle enthusiasts, Grand Prix World Champion Kevin Schwantz.

The track is also in the process of constructing on-site car-storage facilities for its members, which can be arranged for an extra fee. While GAIN wouldn’t comment on the number of memberships sold (of their long-term goal of 499), there are members from as far away as Germany and Asia. One member from California is rumoured to be shipping and storing 19 cars.

Speed Island
To build the Vancouver Island facility, GAIN studied clubs in Europe and drew heavily on the experience of Tilke GmbH, which has worked on motorsport country clubs in Georgia and Colorado in the U.S., as well as clubs in Spain, Norway, Germany, Kazakhstan and Bahrain. In designing the Vancouver Island circuit, Hermann Tilke’s business partner, architect Peter Wahl, and Tilke’s director for the Americas, engineer Christian Epp, made several visits to the Cowichan Valley site.

“It is wonderful when we get to work with a piece of land like this,” Wahl says, referring to the changes of elevation found on the site. “As a designer, you can play with this topography. The site reminds me of the project in Austria where we did the A1 Ring for Formula One. With that project we had the opportunity to put in some interesting features because of the hills. This makes racing a bit like a roller-coaster ride, which is fun and challenging for the driver.”

Roller-coaster ride seems an apropos description for a track that has significant elevation changes of 12 per cent and 19 turns carved into its 2.3-kilometre length — 12 right-hand and seven left-hand turns, which can be setup into five different configurations. It’s also how Dr. Sunny Tatra describes his exhilarating experiences driving this “technical track.”

Tatra, a local dentist and sponsor of GAIN’s annual Vancouver Island Motor Gathering charity event, is an avowed car aficionado and has been a client of GAIN since 2006. He was one of the first Vancouver Island residents to purchase a 25-year membership. His interest in the membership developed through GAIN’s driver education program.

“If you buy a car from us and you have an interest in performance driving, then we’ll invite you into our school system,” Trzewik explains. “After several levels of instruction on the track, you’ll become a relatively good driver and may discover it’s a passion and get a membership. Whatever you decide, you end up really understanding your car’s capabilities and why you bought your BMW or Mercedes or whatever car you bought.”

Tatra has always been keen on GAIN’s driver training program. Even before the motor circuit was built, he travelled with the dealer group to tracks in Las Vegas and Ontario, as well as attending local events. While initially drawn to the “fun factor” of handling high-performance cars at high speeds, he is now a vocal proponent of the safety outcomes, crediting the training he received with his reaction when another car did a U-turn at 100 kilometres per hour on the highway out of Drumheller, Alberta. His family, including his two young children, was in the car.

“We walked away, but the occupants of the other car weren’t so lucky,” Tatra says. “That had to do with the high-speed manoeuvres and high-speed training that I received on a track. How often on a street do you hit speeds of 110 kilometres per hour and then bury the brake pedal? How do you know how a car responds as the load shifts from the rear tires to the front tires in terms of making a manoeuvre to avoid an accident? When that happened, I don’t think I even thought about it. I just responded because I’d done it around four or five times before.”

Now, with the motorsport facility built, GAIN will be able to host more driver training on the Island and not have to rely on off-site venues, such as tracks in Las Vegas or Ontario.

The Showcase
In addition to its benefits to the dealerships, a big business case for the track was the work that the GAIN group does with the car manufacturers. Trzewik says part of the risk assessment was looking at possible manufacturer events, and the Island’s potential for year-round operations at the track.

“We represent manufacturers who are looking to showcase their cars,” says Trzewik. “As of October, they normally have to leave Canada. Why do we go so far and spend so much when the weather is better on Vancouver Island? Why are we flying 40 to 50 people around the world?”

Before its official opening, the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit hosted the launch of the Audi R8 in April. According to Trzewik, the three-week event saw Audi spending $1.3 million in the area on hotels, signage, food and beverages.

“Not all of these manufacturer’s launches will last three weeks, but the Audi event was one of 10 such events that we will host this year,” Trzewik says.

Another draw for car manufacturers looking to launch their latest models and for car enthusiasts looking for the ultimate motorsport club is GAIN’s investment in the nearby Villa Eyrie Resort (formerly the Aerie Resort and Spa). The renovated luxury facility will reopen this month with 40 suites, a restaurant, a spa and a clubhouse for motor-circuit members. Along with hosting members, GAIN hopes the resort will become the perfect retreat for locals, visitors to the Island and guests of corporate clients renting the facilities.

Trzewik sees Villa Eyrie’s location on a scenic Malahat property as ideal for people to get to the track and to downtown Victoria, as well as being the perfect base for all the activities of the Cowichan, including golfing, fishing and wine tasting.

“The car manufacturers have choices all over the world, and we are now one of those choices,” says Trzewik. “Because of the incomparable setting of the resort, the beautiful nature of the Island and the activities possible in this area, I think we have a pretty good shot at attracting a lot of people here to the Island.”